What’s the Difference Between Hot Cocoa and Hot Chocolate?

(Image credit: Maureen Petrosky)

Whether it’s topped with a few plump marshmallows or a heaping scoop of freshly whipped cream, a mug of piping hot chocolate is one of winter’s greatest pleasures. But wait — is what you have in your hands hot chocolate or actually hot cocoa?

The terms are used interchangeably so often that it probably seems like they are identical beverages. While both mean an instant remedy for cold winter days, are they one in the same?

Come to find out, hot cocoa and hot chocolate are indeed different! Here are the facts.

What Is Hot Cocoa?

Hot cocoa is usually made from cocoa powder, sugar, and milk. Because of that, hot cocoa tends to be sweet and light in body. It often also contains flavoring like vanilla or even spices like ground cinnamon. So those packets of Swiss Miss you grew up on are most definitely hot cocoa, and not hot chocolate.

What Is Hot Chocolate?

On the other end of the spectrum is hot chocolate, which is just that: melted chocolate. Good-quality milk or dark (or even white!) chocolate is chopped finely or shaved so that it melts quickly when combined with hot water, milk, or even cream. It can also contain flavoring like vanilla, but usually doesn’t have added sugar, as there is already sugar in the chocolate.

The result is a rich, thick beverage that tends to be less sweet than hot cocoa, but even more decadent. Sometimes the treat can practically be pudding-like!